By William J. Barber II
January 11, 2018
IDEAS

The Rev. Barber is co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.


President Donald Trump’s pick for a lifetime seat on the federal bench in North Carolina is the latest sign of how our politics have descended. A white man with a 30-year record of white supremacy receiving the unqualified support of the President and our state’s two U.S. senators, while two qualified African-American women cannot even get a hearing, is not merely bad politics. It is moral poison. More than 50 years after the passage of the now-defunct Voting Rights Act, how can North Carolina still be stuck in this moral ditch?

One prime reason is Thomas Farr, the Raleigh attorney Trump nominated for a judicial appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. I’ve spent my whole life in North Carolina, and I know Farr. I know what he’s done, what he stands for and just how detrimental he will be to his constituents if confirmed.

Farr has been the lead attorney in a series of recent legislative efforts to suppress political participation by African Americans in the state. In 2010, Farr advised the General Assembly in what federal courts later termed a “racial gerrymander” of North Carolina House, Senate and U.S. Congressional districts. In separate lawsuits, each of these redistricting plans was determined to have discriminated against African-American voters.

In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted a bill that shortened early voting, required voters to present government-issued IDs and eliminated same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting — all of which are techniques known to suppress voters. Farr advised the legislature on the bill and then became lead counsel in a three-year battle to defend it. Federal courts ruled the law unconstitutional and an attempt to disenfranchise African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.”

As Farr is selected, Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr have blocked the ascent of two highly qualified African-American women —Jennifer Prescod May-Parker, who was chief of the Appellate Division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District, and Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former state Supreme Court Justice. For them to approve instead a tenacious opponent of civil rights echoes a racial past whose bitterness we should transcend, not resurrect.

Amos 5:15 says, “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.” To place someone who shows conspicuous contempt for equal protection under the law and a racist mindset is not only the wrong use of the judiciary, it is an offense of the moral law of God.

Farr began his career as a campaign aide to Senator Jesse Helms. Helms entered public life in campaigns that urged “White People Wake Up” and smeared the University of North Carolina as “the University of Negroes and Communists.” Helms was notorious for his diatribes against “Negro hoodlums” and “forced integration,” and for touting the “purely scientific statistical evidence of natural racial distinction in group intellect.” He became the state’s most vociferous opponent of the civil rights movement, which, as late as 2005, Helms railed had “ripped away at the customs and institutions people cared about.”

In 1983, Helms filibustered the proposed Martin Luther King holiday, accusing King of being an “action-oriented Marxist.” The following year, Thomas Farr became a Helms protégé, joining as legal counsel to his 1984 U.S. Senate campaign, during which Senator Helms publicly expressed his gratitude for the support of the Ku Klux Klan. Farr served in the same capacity for Helms’s race-baiting 1990 campaign against the African–American former mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt; Carter Wreen, one of Farr’s colleagues then and supporters now, admits, “We played the race card and I’m not proud of it.”

During Farr’s time on the campaign, the Helms Campaign Committee sent more than 105,000 post cards to African Americans wrongly warning that they were ineligible to vote and could be arrested for voter fraud if they appeared at the polls. Farr denied having any knowledge of this effort, but a former Department of Justice official said the Helms disciple “absolutely” was involved in this and earlier illegal voter suppression tricks that the campaign described as “ballot security efforts.” A 1992 consent decree prohibited the campaign from tactics “to intimidate, threaten, coerce, deter, or otherwise interfere with a qualified voter’s exercise of the franchise” —and Thomas Farr signed the decree. More than 20 years later, during Farr’s defense of the election law that the Fourth District Court ruled targeted African-American voters “with almost surgical precision,” the judge in Winston-Salem asked Farr, “Why don’t y’all want people to vote?”

A track record that continues to raise this question should prevent anyone from being appointed to the federal bench. But the problem is compounded by the fact that Farr would preside over the Eastern District, which contains a majority of the state’s counties with the highest percentages of African–American residents. Despite being home to North Carolina’s “Black Belt,” the Eastern District has never had an African-American judge in its nearly century and half of existence. It’s a place where it often feels like the civil rights movement never happened.

Farr doesn’t have to be the kind of politician who represents North Carolina. But Senator Burr says Farr will “serve North Carolina well,” and Senator Tillis — a supporter of the massive voter suppression and racialized redistricting that allowed Republicans to take a super majority in the state legislature — calls the President’s nominee “impeccably qualified.” In doing so while blocking the hearings of May-Parker and Timmons-Goodson, these Senators insist North Carolina be revealed as backward-looking and bitter during nationally televised Senate hearings for a morally stained and unrepentant figure like Thomas Farr.

Being a conservative is not the same thing as spending almost 40 years fighting to block full citizenship for all Americans. It is high time Senator Tillis and Senator Burr stop injecting their ideologically driven and purely partisan politics into the halls of justice and high time we told them so. Because this is not just about what Thomas Farr stands for — it is about what North Carolina stands for.

“We will have to repent in this generation,” Dr. Martin Luther King wrote from an Alabama jail, “not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people… but for the appalling silence of the good people.” For the love of God, let them hear you.

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